Talking sense

VT Communications has proposed a strategy to efficiently restore communications from disaster zones to the outside world

Disaster-stricken areas suffering from a collapse of communications may be able to restore connections with the outside world more efficiently using a solution proposed by VT Communications.

Formally the BBC World Service’s transmission and distribution department, the UK-based company is offering a four-stage approach in crisis areas ranging from transmitting messages into affected regions within 24 hours of a disaster, to the construction and operation of a permanent communications infrastructure once the situation has improved.

‘If you analyse these disasters it is almost like a medical situation. First there is a quick response to move in and get some communication going in the region and then you can stand back and do a more considered response,’ said Josh Sparks, head of VT’s product and development.

According to him there is not an existing end-to-end strategy on offer at the moment to deal with these situations, with many different organisations coming together in a crisis to offer solutions where possible.

VTs’ service is largely based on short-wave radio, particularly in the initial response stage, because it allows messages to be transmitted into a disaster region remotely —from between 400 and 3,000 miles for good coverage. ‘We can get into China from places such as Taiwan,’ said Sparks.

As the company broadcasts to more than 100 countries from 29 different locations, Sparks said it is able to respond quickly at short notice.

‘We have pushed shortwave into Tibet, Sudan and Zimbabwe at short notice when crises have occurred. It makes for good cross-border communications because typically when there is a major disaster or political upheaval, one of the first things to go are the FMs and broadcasting capabilities within the affected regions, so when all your other infrastructure is gone and the TV will not turn on, the odds are you will be able to get radio,’ he said.

The second stage of VT’s solution takes the form of a portable, lightweight fast-response device that can be taken directly into a crisis zone within 48 hours and used to broadcast information locally using FM radio.

Weighing around 20kg, this suitcase-sized piece of equipment houses a small transmitter, an aerial made from glass fibre poles, a basic sound mixer, microphones, CD players and a small laptop. It requires an external power supply, which can be found locally, or if this is unavailable, a generator could also be shipped out along with the suitcase.

‘It is quite small, relatively light and resiliently mounted within the case. Although it is based on off-the-shelf equipment, the integration into the suitcase and making it robust is what our specialist mechanical design teams are working on at the moment,’ said Sparks.

‘There is then a natural progression into the full facility based around full modules which give you high production units,’ he added.

In this third option, VT’s larger unit has features such as a bigger transmitter unit, a small integrated newsroom system, a built-in broadband global area network (BGAN) satcoms unit, an optional silent generator unit and, if required, an inflatable air-conditioned tent.

‘The BGAN is a relatively low bandwidth satellite solution that allows you to get communications in and out and be able to update a website — although it would not be able to host a website within a region,’ said Sparks.

Insufficient bandwidth means that television broadcasts are not yet possible from the BGAN, but the component does allow coupling with other units if necessary.

Once the crisis has abated, VT is then able to offer the building of a permanent broadcast infrastructure from the ground up — right from the surveying stage through to the construction of civil buildings and provision of communications equipment.

‘We have produced communications and broadcast vehicles for a major global peacekeeper I cannot mention, and we have built ground-up broadcasting facilities for the BBC in Amman on just a piece of desert. Customers can come to us for as little or as much as they want,’ said Sparks.

Anh Nguyen